Monday, March 9, 2015

Torchbearers, Hirelings and Redshirts - Oh My!

When I read about the early days of gaming (Hawk & Moor) hirelings - or maybe more accurately cannon-fodder were commonplace. When I played in the early 80s, almost every character had a henchman or two in the group I played with in the Poconos (summers and occasional weekends) and nearly no henchmen in my New York groups.

The primary difference was number of players in the group.

In the Poconos we had a group of four at best - a DM and three players. We tried using two PCs per player for a bit (and even the evil DM PC on occasion) but quickly decided one PC per player and a rotating stable of henchmen and followers was more satisfying. It gave each player a singular lead character and gave an easy solution to the question "what do I do with this + 1 sword now that I have something better?" You simply passed it down.

In New York, my group consisted of schoolmates. We could easily have six, eight or even twelve or more players at the table. Hirelings and henchmen weren't feasible to add to the number of characters already in play.

When the New York group stabilized at five to six players plus DM, we did see the occasional henchman or torchbearer, but they were the exception to the rule.

These days my players often grab a handful of men at arms at first level, but by the time they've reach second level, those red shirts are either dead or dismissed. Unless they gain a henchman through roleplay and the events in the adventure, henchmen are rare indeed these days.

Where do you stand on henchmen and hirelings these days? Does it depend on the size of your group?


  1. My players will often use one or two hirelings, whose job is to carry stuff and die stupidly. Generally I play these as a cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Beni from The Mummy. I don't think I've ever seen a henchman in 30+ years of play.

  2. Hirelings are mostly guides, rather than porters. None of my players has ever expressed an interest in henchmen, and like TSK that goes back 38 years or so of playing. I've toyed with the idea off and on, but never had a DM who was interested in letting me try.

  3. In our OD&D Eris games, we use them unless there are 6+ players in the game. That ends up meaning we don't usually have them along.

    In the S&W Stonehell game I run, I follow the same basic rule. I will sometimes allow secondary characters to come along on really low attendance days that occur due to my sometimes funky schedule. It gives me a chance to kill off real PCs instead of flat-out redshirts.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Dungeon expeditions are just that: expeditions. Porters are needed to carry necessary supplies, and our game builds this into its mechanics. Remember those Congo expeditions from the 19th century? It's like that, pretty much...

    1. The issue is finding an easier way to handle combat and encumbrance for so many. It's doable.

    2. Combat for hirelings is easy, they go after their boss or a the end of a round (They are slowed down becasue other folks are barking orders). Many of the hirelings should be avoiding death. or holding the lights for those that attack it isn't hard for a player to roll an extra 3 or 4 attacks at lesser hit chances.

    3. Indeed, most hirelings won't be fighting (though they might be the 'redshirts' who trigger traps, get picked off in an ambush, etc.). For the handful that do, rolling 3 different coloured d20s at once at the end of the round isn't too much hassle, certainly not as the reason that there are men-at-arms at all is because the party is much smaller (3-5) than the assumed party size when D&D was devised.

  6. On Tekumel, your clan will send torchbearers and porters, and sometimes a little extra muscle, so since the PCs aren't paying them, they are more willing to take them. I usually give them at least half as many torchbearers as PCs, sometimes parity.

  7. I allow players to have as many hirelings as they can obtain/afford, because this is often a status symbol. They remain "monsters" however (being described by just hit die, AC, damage and movement), and will only perform the duty they were hired for. They will have a loyalty score which indicates how willing they will be to enter danger (this is affected by the amount they are paid) and will always test morale (and are likely to flee as a group if it fails). A character's reputation will suffer (at the very least) if people they hire don't return (whether it was their fault or not).

    For example a magic user may often hire a veteran heavy infantry soldier as a bodyguard. The soldier would only act as the magic user's bodyguard. It would have 2d8 hit points, an AC of 4, and do 1d8 damage (sword). Its only activity will be to intercept a melee attacker targeting the magic-user employer (although it does act in non-combat situations as spear-carrier "muscle" in the background that can stand around and look menacingly at people).

    Because hirelings lack initiative and only perform their prescribed duties it makesthem fairly easy to use.

    Henchmen are qualitatively different. In my game these often take the role of trusted lieutenants and are actually often put in charge of hirelings. They still act within the bounds of their defined role but are able to act independently and take initiative. Having henchmen is important, because the character can't be everywhere at once.

    This makes hirelings reasonably easy to run.

    Torchbearers carrying light and porters carrying supplies are very useful, although you generally (as a player) want to limit their number to those you can reasonably expect to protect if it all drops in the pot. Because they are quite likely to break and flee if engaged in combat. They tend to huddle together in a group behind the player characters, anyway.

  8. When we play OSR games we are still fans of hirelings and henchmen and more than one has become a replacement PC.

  9. In my original DD campaign(b/x) from '88 or there about the players just hated having henchmen(what do you mean they want a share of the treasure? He got the kill xp?) And they would usually die horrible deaths ... stabbed in the back by a player or just shoved to the front in a lethal combat situation.


Tenkar's Tavern is supported by various affiliate programs, including Amazon, RPGNow,
and Humble Bundle as well as Patreon. Your patronage is appreciated and helps keep the
lights on and the taps flowing. Your Humble Bartender, Tenkar

Blogs of Inspiration & Erudition